by Liel Leibovitz | The Jewish Week | 8 April 2005
Columbia president says he’ll revamp procedures for student complaints; committee chair defends panel as Jewish students charge ‘whitewash.’
Reacting quickly to a Columbia University committee report which found little evidence that professors in the Middle East studies department had intimidated pro-Israel students but sharply criticized the university’s grievance procedure, President Lee Bollinger vowed this week a “complete overhaul” of the process by which students register complaints against faculty members.
In an interview with The Jewish Week Monday, Bollinger said that within the next several days he would announce the formation of a process to begin revamping the grievance procedures.
In addition, Bollinger said he intended to fortify “programs to enrich debate on campus about controversial issues,” as well as seek “ways to help students work through difficult issues” as they arrive on campus.
Meanwhile, the chairman of the ad hoc committee established to look into accusations of intimidation in the Mideast studies department strongly defended his panel against charges that it was biased against the pro-Israel students.
Ira Katznelson, a history professor, said the accusations were misguided.
In his first extended interview since the report was released March 30, Katznelson said Tuesday that “The imputations are deeply unfair.
“In the academic community, people have wide and divergent views,” he said. “This was not an inquiry into Middle East politics but an inquiry into the conditions of learning at Columbia. Each committee member shared these values of academic freedom and academic responsibility.”
Some Jewish critics, however, have charged that the committee was tainted, as two of the five members had signed a petition calling on Columbia to divest from Israel.
Katznelson, who is opposed to divestment, said that while he regretted the lack of a clear grievance procedure that eventually led to the creation of the committee, he is nonetheless proud of the committee and its work. He called the panel “thoughtful, fair and judicious.”
“The most difficult part of the experience was the sense of regret that the process proved necessary,” he said. “One would hope that in university life, concerns and grievances would find a place in a more normal procedure, both formal and informal.”
The grievance procedure was at the heart of the committee’s recommendations. The committee, which interviewed 62 students and faculty members, and read written testimonies from another 60, concluded that Columbia’s grievance procedure was fundamentally flawed. The result, the report said, was that both students and faculty members were left without a clear channel through which to address complaints.
The committee’s investigation, the report said, “leads us to urge that whatever the particular structures adopted in each unit, they be accessible, transparent, geared toward the speedy resolution of complaints and the appropriate protection of privacy, and that the university devise ways to educate all members of the community as to their existence and proper use.”
Reactions to the report varied. Many of those on and off the Columbia campus — including the American Jewish Committee, whose executive director, David Harris, praised the report as “an important step forward” — were pleased. Those on both ends of this ongoing conflict, however, cried foul.
“This is a biased report by a biased committee, which ignored the facts to protect its own,” read a statement by Charles Jacobs, the head of the Boston-based David Project, a pro-Israel lobby behind the film “Columbia Unbecoming” that ignited the controversy last fall by documenting the instances of alleged intimidation.
In separate statements, the American Jewish Congress joined Jacobs’ criticism of the committee’s makeup, and Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman said it was “a sad day at Columbia University.”
“While the report in its language tries to present itself as balanced,” the ADL statement read, “the bottom line is that the students who felt intimidated before this inquiry are not better off now than they were before.”
Foxman also criticized the committee’s reference to anti-Semitism. In the fact-finding section of the 25-page report, the committee members wrote, “Across the spectrum of these concerns, we found no evidence of any statements made by the faculty that could reasonably be construed as anti-Semitic.”
“The report’s finding that there was no anti-Semitism is a red herring,” the Foxman statement said, “since no one in responsibility has ever charged the university with engaging in anti-Semitism. The issue is, and has always been, the alleged intimidation of pro-Israel students by faculty members. That issue is inadequately addressed by the report.”
Addressing the issue of anti-Semitism, Bollinger said, “We will not tolerate intimidation of students in a classroom for expressing reasonable opinions. As a consequence of the inadequacy of our procedure this has become a much larger matter, we needed that resolved and the committee was set up to investigate that, not allegations of anti-Semitism.”
Professor Joseph Massad, the subject of many of the complaints brought before the committee, criticized the existence of the committee and its findings.
In a lengthy statement to the committee, Massad detailed what he termed a campaign of intimidation against him. He said the campaign was on behalf of a vast array of bodies, including most of the press, the David Project and the “intimidation to which I am being subjected by the Columbia University administration, most manifestly through the convening of your own committee before which I appear today out of a combined sense of intimidation and obligation and not because I recognize its legitimacy.”
Most Serious Charge
The main charge before the committee was brought by Deena Shanker, a Jewish, pro-Israel student who claimed that Massad told her, “If you’re going to deny the atrocities being committed against Palestinians, then you can get out of my classroom.”
Despite hearing conflicting evidence, including two witnesses who corroborated Shanker’s account and numerous others who contradicted it, the committee members said that they found it credible that Massad’s “rhetorical response to her query exceeded commonly accepted bounds by conveying that her question merited harsh public criticism.”
The panel also noted that there was “no basis for believing that Professor Massad systematically suppressed dissenting views in his classroom. To the contrary, there is ample evidence of his willingness — as part of a deliberate pedagogical strategy — to permit anyone who wished to do so to comment or raise a question during his lectures.”
Speaking at a “teach-in” on campus this week, however, Massad criticized Bollinger for convening the committee, and the committee for deeming the accusations credible despite some evidence to the contrary. As he walked on and off stage, he received a lengthy standing ovation from a crowd of several hundred supporters.
In an interview with The Jewish Week last week, several of the students who appeared in “Columbia Unbecoming” said that while they were disappointed by the committee’s report — which they said was “the definition of whitewash” — they were still hopeful after meeting last week with Bollinger that real change may come.
“President Bollinger was very sympathetic,” said Bari Weiss, one of the students at the meeting. “He came in with an open ear. We’re looking to him now.”
Ariel Beery, a leader of the pro-Israel students, added: “Even if justice will finally be done, it brings with it a little bit of sadness that it took so long for something so natural to happen.”
The report, Beery said, addressed the four basic tenets that he and his fellow students have been insisting on all along.
“It made it clear that harassment is unacceptable,” Beery said. “It looked into what constitutes a grievance, into the grievance procedure, and into the failure of the university to address these issues in the last few years.”
Still, Beery said, he was “disappointed that the committee only referred to three public cases” while ignoring other testimony.
The report also contained several surprising clauses. In a segment titled “Pedagogy in Context,” the committee’s members described an escalation of political sentiments in the last several years, a result of global processes such as 9-11, which led some pro-Israeli bodies, both inside and outside the university, to take direct action against professors.
The report cited students’ and professors’ testimonies about pro-Israel “outside agitators” who infiltrated classes and disrupted them with heckling, creating an uneasy atmosphere in which several students felt stifled.
One undergraduate student, for example, told the committee that she was reluctant to speak in class “for fear of attack from students, but also from reporters who may continue their investigations of our school undetected.”
In addition, the report found evidence that the lack of a clear grievance procedure may have failed professors just as it had students.
One faculty member, for example, told the committee that “over the past three or four years, I’ve had a steady stream of complaints” from pro-Israel students unhappy with the way they were treated in some classes.
“Astonishingly,” the report read, “these faculty did not know nor did they attempt to establish how to bring these concerns to any responsible authorities.”
More disturbingly, perhaps, the committee found that other faculty members, who remain unidentified, approached Massad’s students, “requesting them to provide information on his statements in class as part of a campaign against him.”
Such lack of collegiality, the report read, was reprehensible.
“We need to reaffirm that sense of collective responsibility which is vital for the well-being of every community of scholars,” the final paragraph read, “and to nurture the mutual respect required to sustain us in our common quest for the promotion of learning and the advancement of knowledge.”